South of the Border Sandwiches

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by Nancy Gerlach, Food Editor Emeritus

Nancy Gerlach


  • Poblano Shrimp Quesadillas

  • Spicy Chorizo Breakfast Burritos

  • Carne Asada Tacos

  • Shredded Chicken Flautas with Spicy Avocado Sauce

  • Ham and Cheese Tortas with Chipotle Mayonnaise

  • Gorditas

If you were asked to define the word “sandwich,” what pops into your mind? I’ll bet it’s two pieces of bread with a filling in between. Legend has it that the sandwich was named after the Earl of Sandwich, a gambler in 1700s who, not wanting to take the time to leave the gaming tables to eat, came up with the concoction and found that it was a quick and easy solution to the problem. But I find the definition of a couple of pieces of bread with a filling too limited. After all, sandwiches mean different things to different people.

Long before the Earl came-up with his quick meals, the natives of Meso-America were enjoying their own grab and go foods in the form of antojitos. These are the dishes most people associate with Mexico and include tacos, gorditos, burritos, and tamales, to name a few. Sold in snack shops, from carts by street vendors, or the numerous taquerias that open at night, these “little whims” are considered snacks or a light meal. So, if you expand the definition of bread to bread-type products you can include tortillas, which are, after all the bread of Mexico. Do that and then we’re talking some really unique sandwiches.

No matter what they are called, we love all types of sandwiches. We eat them for lunch, we eat them for dinner, and we even eat them for breakfast! The following are some of my favorite, fiery, hold-in-your-hand foods from Mexico. Use these recipes as a basis for developing your own favorites. There are no rules, so just use your imagination for the fillings and create your own “south of the border” sandwiches.

Poblano Shrimp Quesadillas

This is Mexico’s answer to the grilled cheese sandwich! They are most delicious made with the rich, stringy cheese from Chihuahua made by the Mennonites, but lacking that, any good melting cheese such as mozzarella, string or even Monterey Jack are good substitutes. Quesadillas can be made with either corn or flour tortillas and the tortillas can be folded in half over the filling, or stacked with the filling in between. Cheese isn’t the only food you can use, I use what is on hand in my refrigerator. Just remember you are only toasting the quesadilla until the cheese melts so any filling needs to be cooked before using.

  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil

  • ½ small onion, sliced

  • 1 poblano chile, roasted, peeled, stem and seeds removed, and cut in strips

  • 2 teaspoons dried epazote, or substitute dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • 8 corn tortillas

  • ½ pound cooked small shrimp

  • 1 to 1 ½-cups grated mozzarella cheese

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet until hot. Add the onions and saute until they are softened. Sprinkle the epazote or oregano over the top. Transfer the onions to a bowl and toss with the chile strips. Using a paper towel, wipe any excess oil out of the skillet.

Return the skillet to the heat, and warm the tortillas, 1 or 2 at a time, on one side over medium heat. Turn the tortillas and place some of chile mixture on one half of the tortilla. Sprinkle a little epazote over the mixture. Top with the shrimp and sprinkle some of the cheese over the top.

Continue to heat the tortillas until cheese begins to melt. Fold them over and continue on one side and then the other until the cheese has melted and the tortilla starts to crisp. They should be slightly crisp but still chewy.

Yield: 8 quesadillas

Heat Scale: Mild

Spicy Chorizo Breakfast Burritos

Just about any filling can be wrapped in a flour tortilla and become a burrito, one of the most popular of the Mexican sandwiches. The breakfast burrito has been made popular in this country by a number of fast food restaurants, but none are as tasty as this one. So start your day with this spicy, south of the border, “tortilla sandwich.”

  • ½ pound chorizo sausage

  • 1 small onion, chopped

  • 1 small potato, peeled, cooked and diced

  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • 3 eggs, beaten with 1 to 2 tablespoons water or milk

  • 4 flour tortillas

Remove the chorizo from the casing and cook in a heavy skillet until crumbly. Add the onion and continue to saute until the onion is soft and the chorizo is done. Remove the pan from the heat and pour off the accumulated fat.

Return the pan to the heat and stir in the potatoes and oregano..

Add the eggs to the chorizo mix and cook until set, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes.

Warm the tortillas by wrapping in a damp towel and heat in the microwave at 50% for a minute or until hot.

To Assemble: Place one-fourth of the mixture in the tortilla and fold in two opposite sides. Fold over the other sides like an envelope and serve.

Yield: 4 burritos

Heat Scale: Medium

Carne Asada Tacos

To most Americans, a taco is a corn tortilla that is bent in half to form u-shape, fried crisp, and stuffed with a ground beef mixture topped with cheese. But in Mexico, tacos are made with fresh, hot soft tortillas that are rolled around meat, beans, or even fish. Consumed daily by millions south of the border, they are usually eaten as a snack, as a light meal with a bowl of soup, or as an appetizer. Nothing could be simpler than this carne asada taco which is filled with a marinated skirt steak that has been grilled and served with hot, soft corn tortillas and your choice of condiments.


  • ½ cup chopped onion

  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped

  • 3 tablespoons lime juice, fresh preferred

  • 1 tablespoon ground chile de arbol, or substitute New Mexican red chile powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin


  • One 1.5 pounds skirt steak, trimmed of fat and the white membrane

  • 6 bulb onions

  • Vegetable oil

  • 12 small corn tortillas


  • Pico de gallo salsa or your favorite tomato based salsa

  • Guacamole

  • Chopped fresh cilantro

Put all the ingredients for the marinade in blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Cover the steak with the marinade and marinate for 1 hour at room temperature, or 4 hours or more in the refrigerator.

Prepare a charcoal grill and when the coals are medium hot, brush the onions with the oil and place over the coals to roast, turning frequently so they don’t burn. Add the steak and grill to the desired doneness. For a steak that is 1 ½ to 2-inches thick, about 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium rare.

Wrap the tortillas in a damp towel and place in a microwave safe container. Microwave at 50% for 4 minutes and let sit, covered for a couple of minutes.

Carve the steak across the grain into long thin pieces. Arrange the meat on a platter and serve along the hot tortillas and the garnishes.

Yield: 10 to 12 tacos

Heat Scale: Medium to Hot (depending on the salsa)

Shredded Chicken Flautas with Spicy Avocado Sauce

Flautas (flaow-tahs) or “flutes” are rolled and fried tortillas similar to taquitos but 2 tortillas are rolled together to form a long flute and often served with a avocado sauce. The following is a recipe from a small restaurant located near the hospital in Juarez, Mexico–one of my favorites! This is a great way to use up any left-over chicken you may have on hand.

Avocado Sauce:

  • 1 7-ounce can tomatillos, drained

  • 2 avocados, pitted and peeled

  • 3 to 4 serrano chiles, stems removed, chopped

  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion

  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro

  • 2 teaspoon lime juice

  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

  • Salt to taste


  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 1 medium onion, chopped

  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped

  • 2 cups shredded chicken

  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro or 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese

  • 12 corn tortillas

  • Oil for deep frying

To make the sauce: Place all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Allow the sauce to sit at room temperature for an hour to blend the flavors.

In a heavy skillet, heat the oil and saute the onion and garlic until soft. Remove from the heat and toss with the chicken and cilantro.

Pour the oil to a depth of a couple inches and heat to 375 degrees. Dip the tortillas, one at a time, in the oil for 5 seconds to soften. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Overlap two of the tortillas (cover ½ of one with the other) and place a couple of tablespoons of the filling, sprinkle with cheese, roll as tightly as possible and secure with toothpicks.

Fry the flautas, 2 or 3, at a time until crisp and browned, about 1 minute. Drain and remove the toothpicks.

To serve, arrange the flautas on a platter, drizzle some of the avocado sauce over the top and serve the remaining on the side for dipping.

Yield: 6 taquitos

Heat Scale: Medium

Ham and Cheese Tortas with Chipotle Mayonnaise

Tortas are sandwiches and they are made with Mexican bolillo rolls. Similar to crusty French rolls, they are the most popular bread in Mexico after tortillas. Surprisingly, ham and cheese is a common torta combination although almost anything can be used as a filling, including beans. I’ve taken some liberties with the mayonnaise by adding chipotles, but it tastes so good with any number of fillings, I had to include it.

Chipotle Mayonnaise:

  • 2 chipotle en adobo chiles, stems and seeds removed

  • 2 tablespoons lime juice

  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion

  • 1 cup mayonnaise


  • 4 slices yellow cheese, such as cheddar

  • 4 slices cooked ham

  • 1 4-ounce can sliced pickled jalapenos

  • 4 bolillo rolls, or substitute French rolls

  • Sliced tomatoes

  • Thinly sliced onions

  • Shredded lettuce

To make the mayonnaise: Place the chipotles, lime juice and onion in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Put the mayonnaise into a bowl and stir in the chile mixture. Allow the mayonnaise to sit for an hour or more to blend the flavors.

To assemble, split the rolls lengthwise and hollow out some of the bottom of the roll. Spread the mayonnaise on the top and layer the remaining ingredients on the bottom, cover with the top and serve.

Yield: 4 bolillos

Heat Scale: Medium


Gorditas means “little fat ones” and are thick, fried, tortillas that are stuffed with any number of fillings–beef, chicken, pork or beans. Cabbage may seem like an odd garnish but it is very popular topping in Mexico where it holds up better than lettuce in the heat. The use of black beans reflects a Yucatacan influence, so I serve them with a habanero-based sauce.


  • 1 cup vegetable shortening

  • 2 cups masa harina (corn flour)

  • 1 1/3 cups hot water

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • Oil for frying


  • 2 cups cooked, mashed black beans

  • Chopped onions

  • Shredded cabbage

  • Chopped tomatoes

  • Habanero based hot sauce

Beat the shortening until fluffy and add the masa, salt, and water and knead the dough into a ball. Or, if you have a food processor, blend the ingredients for 1 minute using a steel blade until a dough is formed. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and allow it to sit for 15 minutes.

Divide the dough into 6 portions and roll into balls. Roll out each ball to a circle about 1/4-inch thick.

Pour the oil to a depth of 1-inch in a heavy skillet and heat to 375 degrees. Slide the gorditas into the hot oil and spoon some of the hot oil over the top until they puff and brown, about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels.

When the gorditas have cooled, make a slit in the side to form a pocket. Stuff with the filling, top with some of the sauce and serve.

Yield: 6 gorditas

Heat Scale: Medium

Note: If the dough is too dry when you roll it out it will crack and crumble; if too moist, it will stick to the paper.

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